Next month marks the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. But the burglary was the tip of the iceberg: the bigger scandal involved President Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign brazenly peddling government favors for millions of dollars of political donations. In Watergate’s aftermath and the decades since, Congress strengthened our campaign finance laws. But the Supreme Court has chipped away at those reforms, making it harder to fight the corruption that flows from money in politics. Supreme Court missteps, compounded by lower court decisions, have produced the current anything-goes campaign environment. The Court now has an opportunity to undo some of the damage. It is considering a request to take up a case out of Montana that could clarify how much leeway the government has to regulate corrupting political money. Understanding why the Court should do so requires looking at where we are — and how we got here.
Nearly a half-year ahead of the November election, so-called super PACs have already dumped more than $110 million into this election. Nonprofit groups that refuse to disclose their donors have spent millions more. Most disturbingly, million dollar donations from actorsinterested in specific government actions — gifts that would raise obvious corruption concerns if directly handed to candidates — are now routinely handed to super PACs whose exclusive purpose is to elect those candidates.
Functioning as shadow campaigns, these groups exist solely to elect a specific candidate. They are operated by the candidate’s close friends and most trusted political advisors. Candidates and their super PACs share vendors, consultants, messages, and advertising footage. They closely coordinate their efforts: during the Republican presidential primaries, when candidates’ own funds started to dry up, their super PACs repeatedly stepped up to air a barrage of attack ads. Most egregiously, candidates and their senior campaign staff appear at the super PACs’ fundraising events and solicit funds for them. As Mitt Romney candidly stated: “We raise money for super PACs. We encourage super PACs. Each candidate has done that.”